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Hotel Katrina

Dave Peterson risked his business--and became a hero.
Mark Graham

Katie Neason sat with her sisters Helen, Dorothy and Pat in the dining room at the Quality Inn, her expression grave. The day before, the four sisters had watched in horror as their native New Orleans was consumed by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Now, on an incongruously sunny Tuesday in Dallas, more than a dozen of their family members were upstairs packing, preparing to leave the hotel on Market Center Boulevard and check into a public hurricane shelter.

"It wasn't right to stay in a hotel and not have money to pay for those rooms," Neason recalls thinking. "Some of the family could have afforded to stay and some could not, but we had made the decision to all stick together." The conversation at the table was about the uncertainties of the future. Would they have showers at the shelter? Could they park nearby? Where would their bags go?

Suddenly a man they didn't know stepped up to the table. He was short and stocky, with unruly brown hair and a guileless face dominated by a pugnacious jaw. "Is there anything that I can help you all with?" he asked. Neason's first thought was "Who is this?" Her second was "Do we really look that desperate?"

"No, we're just getting ready to leave," she told him. The man introduced himself as Dave Peterson, the hotel owner. He'd overheard their conversation. "Look, I don't care what happens," he said. "I don't care who has to pay the bill, but as long as you and your family have a need, you all aren't checking out of this hotel." Neason was dumbfounded. "I said, 'But our families are upstairs right now packing!' That little man just shook his head and said, 'Well, you just tell them to stop, because you don't have to go anywhere.' And I just started crying."

Thus began one of the most remarkable chapters in the entire saga of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster unprecedented in modern American history. The decision Peterson made that morning to allow his suddenly destitute guests from New Orleans to stay on would place him at the head of an informal relief operation that, unlike many government efforts, worked to near-perfection. At Peterson's Quality Inn, individuals, church groups and companies large and small would unite to resettle hundreds of displaced victims.

"People were kicking them out of hotels up and down the street," Peterson says. "I was looking at them and I said, 'I can't do it, I can't kick them out.'" Initially he reduced rates and then stopped asking for payment altogether. "We had no idea what it would cost," Peterson says. "We had no idea where the money would come from--none of that was worked out." When he noticed evacuees hoarding their breakfast pastries, he ordered his staff to prepare three free meals a day. A permanent housing service, a job fair and a computer lab were organized at the hotel days or even weeks before such services were established at government shelters.

"We took a stand, and then we turned around and looked for what was needed and found it and provided it," Peterson says. Peterson, 50, and his wife Anne, 37, along with co-owners Chuck and Marilyn Sutherland, risked financial ruin to help the hurricane victims, without ever needing to be asked.

But while what happened at the Quality Inn all followed from Peterson's altruistic impulse, it was a massive and spontaneous outpouring of public support that allowed him to succeed. After helping serve that first free dinner on Tuesday, Anne went home and composed an e-mail titled "Making a difference." She sent it to 160 of her colleagues at Landmark Education, a company that offers leadership and personal growth training.

"I expected--well, I don't know what I expected," she says. "I figured maybe 20 or 30 people would clean out their closets. By Thursday afternoon, my phone was ringing nonstop. After a while I was like, 'I can't field all these calls,' so I put out another e-mail that just said, 'Anything you have just bring it to the hotel.' That was kind of the beginning of the end of my normal life." The e-mails were forwarded around the country and eventually around the world, and soon the Petersons were no longer wondering where donations would come from. The main question became what to do with it all.


The staff at the 246-room hotel had already done a certain amount of preparation. Almost every year, hotels in Dallas see an influx of Gulf Coast residents evacuating ahead of a storm, and the Quality Inn's location near downtown, as well as the free breakfast included in the $75 room rate, made it a logical choice. In fact, Neason and the entire extended Womble clan (her sister Helen's last name) had made Peterson's hotel a regular destination, treating the yearly storm evacuations as a weekend getaway. The predicted severity of Katrina meant that the house was fuller than usual, but nothing they couldn't handle.

 

Kenric Neville grabbed the last open rooms at the Quality Inn just hours before the hurricane came ashore in Louisiana. Unlike the Wombles, the four-car, 10-person Neville caravan had taken a circuitous route to Dallas. "We started off trying to get a hotel booked in Monroe, Louisiana," Neville says. "We had it confirmed, but by the time we got to Monroe, they gave it away. The same thing happened to us again in Shreveport." As the first reports of landfall began to air on the news networks, the Nevilles unpacked in Dallas, exhausted. "Nobody brought anything extra," Neville says ruefully, but then adds, "My wife did have the foresight to bring all our important papers."

The Wombles and the Nevilles were representative of the first wave of evacuees, the wave often forgotten in the heartbreaking spectacle of those who would follow. They came prepared to pay their own way in varying degrees and were in far better emotional shape than the later waves of evacuees. But those advantages seemed paltry when the scale of the disaster became clear on Tuesday. The guests at the Quality Inn realized that they were no less homeless than their brethren trapped at the Superdome. People began to seek out Peterson for advice. "I called Dave, and he kind of closed his door and just started talking about how all these people kept coming into his office," Anne says. "He was shell-shocked. At one point he started crying, telling me about this guy who all he had was the shirt on his back."

Peterson wasn't the only one moved by the evacuees' plight. A Lions Club group holding its regular weekly breakfast at the hotel restaurant decided on the spur of the moment to foot the bill for the evacuees' dinner that night. "We were prepared to just provide the food ourselves," says hotel chef Robert Burton, "but this Lions Club group just happened to ask what was going on, and they offered up a check without even saying anything." Anne skipped work to come to the hotel and was stunned by the distraught evacuees crowding the restaurant. "Mostly that first day I just stood there," she says. "I remember Dave was finally like, 'You can pour the iced tea.'"

The next morning Peterson realized that one dinner wouldn't be enough for evacuees with no money to buy food. The breakfast buffet was stripped bare. "We had 300 people in the hotel, and they ate like it was 1,000," Peterson says. A California company alerted by an employee staying at the hotel offered to cover Wednesday's dinner, but Peterson needed a long-term plan. He sat down with his hospitality manager Daryl Stafford. "We talked about doing an at-cost buffet," Stafford recalls, "but then Dave just said, 'Just feed them for free.'" Stafford, accustomed to running a profitable restaurant, chuckles at the memory. "That was a lot to swallow--but as you stood and had the conversation about it and thought about it, it was the right thing to do."

For the next 42 days, Burton and Stafford would feed all comers, no questions asked.

Peterson's thoughts moved on to his guests' other needs in the days that followed. "I was looking at them, and they're wearing the same clothes day after day," he says. "I'm like, we've got to get these people some clothes." But Anne's e-mails were already having their effect. "After one hour we had two ballrooms full of clothes," Peterson says. "In two hours we had three."

In a sense, the Petersons were the ideal couple to manage a relief effort. Before they came to Dallas in January 2003, Dave had worked in the fishing industry in Seattle. In 1987, he began an industry-wide program benefiting food pantries throughout the Northwest. Anne's pragmatic attitude came from her experience as a young single mother on welfare. From her start as a McDonald's worker, she eventually became manager of a carpet business. The two met at a Landmark Education leadership training course in 1996. Both would become instructors for the course--ideal preparation for the challenge they were facing with Katrina.

But they couldn't do it alone. Luckily, Scott Ward, head of downtown ministries for Dallas' First Baptist Church, was searching for a way to contribute on Thursday. "We took a group of about eight of us over to the Red Cross, and the way it works, we couldn't really get involved because we weren't trained. So I said to this group, 'Hey I got this e-mail--maybe we can help.'" When they arrived at the Quality Inn, they saw evacuees lining up for lunch. That was all the folks from First Baptist needed, Anne says. "They were like 'You're it. You're how we're going to make a difference in the Katrina thing.'" First Baptist, along with Highland Park Presbyterian, would become a primary source of labor.

 

Twenty-year-old Kyleen Davidson got Anne's e-mail through her mother, and enlisted her friend Adam Neese to mount a donation drive. The pair canvassed Davidson's neighborhood and netted about $100 and a truckload of supplies. "I thought, 'Wow, we got a truckload of stuff in a couple hours, and we're going to help a lot of people,'" Neese says, "Then I got to the hotel and 100 people had the same idea."

Hairstylist Nancy West was on the original e-mail list and began making calls right away. "The first night I raised $3,000," she says. When she went to the hotel to deliver the money, what she saw moved her to stay. "When I went down there, food, water and shelter were my first instincts," she says, "but then I thought, 'I have something that I can offer that these people really need.'" West set up a makeshift hair salon and cut hair for 12 hours straight. The next day she was reinforced by stylists from a local beauty college. "We probably cut 200 heads of hair in two days," she says.

Real estate lawyer Ken Chaiken also felt compelled to act by the disturbing reports from New Orleans. "I sent e-mails to every one of my clients," Chaiken says. Most of the landlords responded generously, and Chaiken soon had pledges for hundreds of units. But apartments weren't yet part of the Reunion Arena plan. Chaiken was at a loss until an acquaintance mentioned Anne's e-mail. "We went down to the Quality Inn and met Dave and his wife," Chaiken says, "and it was phenomenal what we saw." On Friday he began offering his apartments but found himself overwhelmed with questions he couldn't answer. How big were the rooms? What were the neighbors like? Was there a bus line nearby? "We quickly realized we didn't know what the hell we were doing," he says. The next day, Interfaith Housing Coalition was called in to help, and over the weekend more than 50 families signed leases.

That week, a KXAS-Channel 5 camera crew filmed a segment at the hotel, the first of several media reports. Peterson immediately began getting phone calls from area businesses offering to hire evacuees. Within a day, volunteers were circulating employment applications at dinner, and 27 people found jobs. Whole Foods hired two workers, Dalton Construction three. Centennial Liquors, Office Depot, Labor Ready--the list kept growing. A running job fair was established in the hotel lobby.

Donations of clothes and supplies quickly outstripped the available storage space. Anne decided to ship most of the wares to the Salvation Army. Volunteers crammed a loaned furniture truck full of goods--but the Salvation Army turned them away. "I said, 'We need a warehouse,'" Anne says, "and Dave was like, 'Well, we have a warehouse in back.'" The 10,000-square-foot building at the back of the hotel property had been empty for years and was almost hidden by vegetation. "Nobody had ever used it--I mean wild dogs were living in there."

At a church service on Sunday, Ward appealed for laborers, and at 7 a.m. Monday, more than 30 showed up. Appropriately, it was Labor Day. "We got the weed eaters out and the hedge trimmers and the loppers," Ward says. The air inside the building was stifling, so workers set up a generator to power ventilation fans. Still, "the people who were working inside weren't quite as excited as the people on the outside," Ward says. By Monday evening, the accumulation of goods that evacuees were calling the "Katrina Store" moved into its spacious new home. Volunteer Adam Neese would supervise the facility full time for the next month.

By the end of the holiday weekend, much of the Quality Inn operation was in place. Dozens of leases had been signed; dozens of jobs had been filled. Clothes, toys and furniture stretched in orderly rows the length of the Katrina Store. A computer lab for applying for relief aid and finding loved ones was up and running. Church services were held, games organized, meals, drinks and snacks provided. Ken Chaiken describes the scene: "One night we were over there about 10 at night," he says. "We're over there working on leases for people and finding apartments, and across the room there's a guy cutting hair, and over on the other side there was somebody giving massages, and there was a local nurse there passing out prescriptions that had been donated from Walgreen's." He laughs, still amazed. "It was this little microcosm of society and it was functioning really well." At the time, Peterson estimated that his operation was serving 800 evacuees.

 

FEMA had yet to sign up any evacuees for benefits in Dallas, and a job fair at Reunion Arena was still in the planning stages. Laura Miller's announcement of her Katrina initiative, Project Exodus, was a week away.


In the first week, the clientele at the Quality Inn had been decidedly upscale as evacuees go. Most early arrivals came equipped with vehicles, suitcases and marketable job skills. When the first buses from the ill-fated New Orleans shelters began arriving in Dallas, however, the guests began to find their way to Peterson's refuge with a different sort of baggage: the traumatic experience of the Superdome.

"Everybody that was walking around on the ramps, you were either a hustler or a victim," says 47-year-old Al Womble in a booming voice seemingly at odds with his slight frame. Womble, a carpenter by trade, chose to stay behind with his family to safeguard their home in the pre-Civil War neighborhood of Treme (pronounced Tremay), just north of the French Quarter. The supplies they laid in served them well in the Superdome. "We were the only people in the Superdome with cots," Womble says. "We were the only people that were eating hot food every day." Yet he and his wife still faced restrooms encrusted knee-deep in feces, the constant noise and the rampant rumors.

Like many evacuees, Womble is convinced that rapes and murders were commonplace. His wife confirms an incident in which Womble managed to grab a child by the ankle before the boy hurled himself off a third-story balcony, pursued, Womble says, by sexual predators. Womble also gives vivid accounts of pitched battles between National Guard troops and residents. "When the soldiers would lay down [to sleep], that's when people would rush them and steal their rations."

When the couple finally arrived in Dallas after five days of misery, they were in for a disappointment. "I walked into the Convention Center, I walked into the room and I saw the same thing I saw at the Superdome," Womble recounts. "Thousands of people just lying on the floor. It was better because it wasn't in trash. They were lying on blow-up mattresses, but it still depressed me because we were walking back into the same environment. I said, 'Lord, please, I can't do this again.'" Womble managed to find his relatives already staying at the Quality Inn within hours.

Rudolph Rouzan, a grizzled 78-year-old with a thick Cajun accent, also had a relative waiting at the hotel. One of his two sons had become separated in the pre-dawn chaos at the Superdome and had managed to board a bus a full day earlier than the rest of his family. Rouzan, in the Quality Inn lobby one mid-October morning, looks sharp in an oxford shirt and khakis from the Katrina Store, but his voice is desolate. "Man, it's a rough day," he says. "I buried my wife today. She made it until now, but it was the Superdome that killed her."

The water in Rouzan's Seventh Ward neighborhood was knee-deep when he and his wife finally struck out for higher ground. Within minutes it was up to his waist. The three-mile slog to the Interstate 10 overpass left their feet raw and blistered, but none of the passing National Guard trucks would stop to pick up the hobbling elderly couple. "Those were some cold-hearted young men," Rouzan says. "You'd flag them down, and they'd just look at you. I'm not talking about one truck either. I'm talking 20 or 30 trucks just passed us by."

The family arrived too late to stake out secure territory at the dome. "I don't know where all the whites were," Rouzan says. "I didn't see but maybe 20 to 30 whites." Each night they looked for an area to sleep that would be out of the path of the shifting crowd but not too far back into the dark recesses of the dome that were used for latrines, or worse. "The problem was everyone was looking for that space," Rouzan says. The family slept on wooden pallets.

Even worse was the constant, and false, hope of rescue. "One day at 5 or 6 p.m here come the helicopters, about 10 or 12 of them, making noise like they going to pick you up--but they don't," he says. "That's the scam they run on you." Another "scam" was the constant rumor that buses were on the way. "You stand in that line from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m. to get on a bus to Dallas." Then the rumor mill would again spring to life. "They'd start making you run from this end to that end. They'd say the bus isn't coming to this end of the line, it's coming to the other end, so the people that was first would be last." Ironically, after the sweltering heat of the dome it was the air conditioning in the bus that made the 20-hour trip unbearable when it finally did happen. Rouzan and his family shivered the whole way in their wet summer clothing.

 

His wife fell ill not long after their arrival. Rouzan says a constantly changing cast of doctors at Parkland Hospital never determined what was wrong. "We spend money abroad, billions and billions of dollars a year, but this happened in America," Rouzan says bitterly.

JoAnn Pierce, universally greeted around the hotel as "Miss JoAnn," may have the most frustrating tale of all. For six days she lived in her car, as did many of her co-workers and their families, in a parking garage that overlooked the elevated pavement island of an I-10 overpass. On her second day there, she fell in a pitch-black stairwell and broke her ankle. Eventually rescuers spirited the group of about 70 people away to a small town in Louisiana. Her company later provided a bus ticket to Dallas, where she had an inauspicious arrival late on September 15. "I stayed in the bus station for four hours because there was no assistance for us. It was so chaotic it was unbelievable." She says gangsters and drug dealers prowled among the dazed and exhausted passengers. "The whole thing was surreal--it was like a Third World place."

She heard about the hotel from an outbound passenger and caught a taxi. Marilyn Sutherland, doing desk duty, quickly sent her to Parkland for a permanent ankle cast and then installed her in a room. Pierce finally found an apartment nearly a month later. Before she could sign off, though, the landlords demanded exhaustive documentation of her finances, paperwork that was still in her car trunk in New Orleans. Pierce dutifully made the 17-hour bus trip back to the ruined city, where she recovered the documents and valuables from her car and visited her old apartment. "The doors had been kicked in," she says. "I know my apartment was looted. It was torn apart like somebody was looking for money." The living room ceiling had also buckled.

A helpful Greyhound employee went to buy Pierce's ticket for her for the ride back. Hampered by crutches and a cast, Pierce was the last off the bus in Dallas--and found that her suitcase, the one containing her paperwork and $8,000 in jewelry, was gone. Worse, the helpful employee had not explained the insurance options on the ticket, so Pierce stands to recover only $250. She returned to the hotel, her apartment quest stymied. "I didn't cry," she says. "I just look at it as life goes on, because I'm a strong believer in Jesus Christ. I believe that he carries the burden for me." Pierce is also a believer in the Quality Inn. "Some elements were not the best element, but they went out of their way to treat everybody with love and patience," she says. "I've lost everybody else's phone number, but [the hotel's] I have for sure."


As the weeks passed after Katrina, life at the hotel settled into a pattern of routine frustrations offset by everyday miracles. "One day we'd be out of toothbrushes, the next day we'd be out of underwear," says Neese, the Katrina Store supervisor. Yet somehow the needs were met in a way Anne describes as both mysterious and predictable. "I would say, 'Tell the next three people that call that we need toilet paper,' and three hours later we'd have two pallets of toilet paper," she says. Neese estimates that the contents of the warehouse were completely cycled through at least five times.

Nowhere was the challenge greater than in the kitchen. The hotel had only begun to offer full restaurant service on Valentine's Day 2005, and now a staff used to serving 100 people at breakfast, seven at lunch and a dozen for dinner was expected to provide three meals a day for 700 people. In the middle of it all, a promising chef quit from the strain, leaving only Stafford and Burton--military veterans--to handle the cooking duties. "We rolled our sleeves up and did what we had to do," Stafford says. "At times like that you don't think about yourself. You just think about the task ahead."

The men found help from an unlikely source: Kyleen Davidson. In the first week she had contacted Saviano's, a restaurant in Colleyville where she'd worked, and secured a donation. From there, Davidson slowly assumed the role of food coordinator, managing deliveries from donors such as Whole Foods, Taco Bueno, Chick-Fil-A and Eatzi's. "Honestly, I wouldn't have thought she was that young the way she handled things," Burton says. The restaurant staff also tried to make the evacuees feel at home, at least in the culinary sense. "We tried to make them things from their culture--gumbo, jambalaya--and we'd have red beans and rice every day," Stafford says. "If we missed a day they'd be like, 'Where's the red beans and rice?'"

 

"They brought good spirits, but they also brought some healthy appetites," Burton adds. In time the restaurant was seemingly feeding the evacuees from all the hotels in the area. "It didn't bother us that much once we had all these volunteers bringing stuff in," Burton says. "At this point we need all the people we can get just to eat this stuff up."

Meals were also the setting for community announcements. Peterson would address the guests about concerns of the staff and request suggestions in turn. The community forums were also a good form of rumor control. "There would be these rumors like, 'There's jobs available in Michigan,'" Peterson says. "The next morning everybody would come in and say, 'How do I get to Michigan?'"

Sometimes jobs would seemingly fall from the sky. Ellis Cleaver, a manager for an Irving trucking company, appeared during one meal and asked Peterson if there were any truckers among the evacuees. "I waved at the dining room and said, 'Well, here they are--you can go ask them,'" Peterson says. Cleaver and his son spent hours chatting with the hurricane victims, and the next day two began work for his company, Dependable Auto Shippers.

Yet far more common was an excess of leisure time, time that evacuees would spend sitting by the pool or under the trees, chatting late into the night. "That's why I had to replace huge portions of the grass," Peterson says. "People would sit out there at night and just talk and be together. It basically became a neighborhood of New Orleans."

At times, some of the evacuees seemed to be in no hurry to move out, rejecting Chaiken's housing efforts. "Some of them were rude and nasty about it," he says. One family turned down six apartments in a row.

The constant crowd wore thin on the cleaning staff. "You couldn't tell them to move," says Kathy Meeks, the hotel's head of housekeeping. "They had nowhere to go." Meeks tried to keep as much of a normal room-cleaning schedule as she could, but with such a full house, getting into the rooms sometimes posed a problem. "That was frustrating because we like to get in there at least twice a week," Meeks says. "We know what a room would look like after two or three days of not going in there, and we had people staying in those rooms for a month or more." Most rooms required exhaustive deep-cleaning when they finally became vacant.

Meeks' staff had to empty the trash cans in front of the hotel four times a day. Peterson described the litter as "horrific," even though many evacuees worked with the hotel cleaning crew. Not all were so helpful. "Some people would sit up in their rooms and tell you to come back six or seven times a day," Meeks says. "They weren't doing anything but sitting up in their rooms drinking and smoking." Despite the workload, Meeks only had two defections from her staff of 20. "I was just thankful that I was here to support my ladies, because I love them dearly," she says.

By the second week, all the children were enrolled in school, a fact that helped with the crowding somewhat. "I never thought I would see school buses in front of the hotel in the morning," Peterson says. Each child got a backpack filled with school supplies, courtesy of First Baptist.

Through it all, the shadow of Katrina was never far away. Many of the evacuees were missing family members. Some were hesitant to ask for help, like a woman named Tonya Miller that Anne had befriended. "She starts telling me about her son Devonte, and I said, 'Son? I didn't know you had a son!' and she said, 'Oh, I don't know where he is.'" Anne was floored. "I said, 'Tonya, I'm going to kill you! What do you mean you don't know where he is?'" Tonya had left the boy with his father in New Orleans. Anne found the father in Houston on a Red Cross database, and after another Landmark Education colleague paged the man at the Astrodome for four hours, the 4-year-old was located. Mother and child were soon reunited in Dallas.

 

Operations at the hotel could never have been sustained without guests pitching in. Evacuees bused tables during meals, sorted donations and even took on groundskeeping duties. Al Womble made a powerful impression on volunteer Mark Hefflefinger with his dedication in organizing the mountain of donations at the Katrina Store. "He was just working his tail off," Hefflefinger says. Finally, Womble let slip that he was from New Orleans. "I said, 'You were in the hurricane?' and he said, 'My house was flooded.'" Hefflefinger was amazed. "This guy never complained, he never stopped working," he says. "That was his way of coping. He said, 'You can either lay down and die or stand up and live.'"

A wedding scheduled at the hotel on September 10 likely would never have taken place without the enthusiastic help of the evacuees. The Neville family worked feverishly with hotel staff to refurbish the grounds while Davidson and other volunteers set up a barbecue event in the parking lot to absorb the population overflow. A giant donated tent was erected, along with a grill, a snow-cone machine and even a portable puppet theater. While the paying guests celebrated their poolside wedding, the hurricane contingent relaxed at the barbecue.

True to form, the event precipitated a small miracle. "I didn't just want to give them hot dogs," Davidson recalls. "They should have hamburgers so they really are at a barbecue--but the one thing I didn't think of was buns." She had just realized her mistake when the phone rang. "It was somebody saying that he's from Whataburger, and 'We have 300 buns--can you use them?'" Equally true to form, there was one last wrench in the works: A passing Dallas police officer threatened to cite Peterson for an unauthorized structure but relented when he agreed to buy a $50 permit.


The Quality Inn's success is even more striking when compared to the bureaucratic nightmare of the FEMA effort. Davidson says her experiences have deeply shaken her faith in government programs. "People would come up and say, 'You told me everything I needed to do, and I did it--and I didn't get my money, and it's been two weeks or three weeks.' It wasn't even like anger in their voices. It was them just totally broken. It was like, 'How can our government do this to us?' Eventually they were just so tired you could see it in their eyes and see it in their faces--they just didn't have the energy to be mad.'

"I'd go on to try to register with FEMA," Davidson continues. "Literally, going on to FEMA to try to register people, there was some stuff I couldn't even figure out. Seeing how they were just putting people in loops...Some people were, 'Whatever, they're just stupid,' and I'm like, 'No--did you ever try to go on and do it yourself? It's impossible!'"

Some evacuees that registered in the days after the storm had still received nothing by November. Others were told that their checks had been sent to their New Orleans addresses--homes that in some cases no longer existed. "People would get up at 4 in the morning and call FEMA," Dave Peterson says. "They would call FEMA and put it on hold on the speakerphone and then go back to bed. At 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. they would get their call answered."

The contrast to Peterson's ad hoc tactics couldn't be greater. "I've never met the mayor," he says. "I don't know anybody. We Xeroxed the DISD forms to enroll the kids--that's as far as we got into paperwork."

When FEMA denied benefits to evacuees without bank accounts, Peterson sent them next door to Bank One to open accounts. The first applicant returned and said the bank was requiring a $25 initial deposit. For the next several people, Peterson simply paid out of his own pocket. He later walked over himself and convinced the manager to waive the deposit rule.

All those involved agree that the response of Dallas itself was magnificent--for those in the shelters. For those in hotels, however, programs like the mayor's Project Exodus smacked of the absurd. Keith Womble, a nephew of Kathy Neason, found an apartment in Plano for his family the second week after Katrina struck. Shortly after, Mayor Miller called the complex urging the manager to join Project Exodus. The manager gave the mayor Womble's phone number. He recalls this exchange:

"Hi, this is Laura Miller!"

"OK, who the hell is Laura Miller?"

"I'm the mayor of Dallas."

"OK, how'd you get this number?"

Womble chuckles as he recounts the conversation: "She asked me if I'd like to be part of Project Exodus, so I told her, 'You have a whole lot of people in hotels or in cars that never went to a shelter, and whenever their resources run out they're going to wind up in the shelters you're trying to empty.' She said, 'Well, you have a point there. Would you mind if I paid your utilities for two months?' and I said, 'Not at all!'"

 

At the end of the day, however, Peterson readily concedes that the government will eventually be his saving grace. His records show 10,000 individual stays for the month of September, an astronomical figure reflected in the size of the compensation checks that have finally started to roll in. Peterson remembers the moment when he got his first check in mid-October. "I thought, 'My God--it worked!'"

Peterson's voice breaks with emotion when he talks about his own role. "I could just be a hotel guy," he says. "I could take a bunch of hotels and run them really well and be very successful. But this was a shot to use that in a totally different way, to make this huge difference. Not many people get that opportunity in their entire lifetime. It was like we had this hotel to be able to do this. It was a privilege to have it and to be able to do it."

Needless to say, the evacuees think Peterson is overly modest. The Womble clan recently returned to the Quality Inn for a wedding of their own, that of Katie Neason's nephew Eric. At the reception, the Petersons beam with pride at the joyful faces around them. Rumor has it they skipped out of a ritzy charity ball to attend this modest event at their own hotel, more proof that, as Neason puts it, "You'll never find anybody else like those Petersons."


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